What I thought: This book is my first foray into urban fantasy, and wow! I loved the world that Lauren Beukes created, but at the same time, some things confused me. That may be because I read too quickly and miss important details. However, I would love to see her write another book taking place in this world. The cover is wonderful and was one of the main reasons I wanted to read this book. The description and some of the key words on the back cover such as "Gangster Shamen" also helped my enthusiasm for reading this.
The plot centers around Zinzi December, a scam artist and criminal. Because of her criminal status, she carries around a sloth. This "aposymbiotic" relationship gives Zinzi magical powers. She is able to find lost objects, and this talent sets the plot in motion. She is hired by two other "zoos" who want her to find a missing pop singer. I felt that Zinzi was the force driving the book and the plot with the missing singer seemed very secondary and not important, until the reveal at the end of the book. The plot seemed more like a way to show off this world that Beuke created, but she does tie the loose ends together at the end, as far as the plot goes. The ending was a little unexpected, and somewhat sad, but was fitting for the gritty reality that Zinzi lives in. I didn't hate the plot, but it wasn't my favorite part of the book.
Zinzi isn't a great person, but Beukes' characterization is so good, that I wanted to know more about Zinzi and her past. Zinzi isn't sugarcoated, and it's clear why she has a sloth. I would love another book set in this world and centered around Zinzi. The book ends ambigously, thus setting Zinzi up for a second book. I don't know if this was her intention, but I do hope she revisits Zinzi and her world.
However, the plot did leave me with many questions. Beukes exposes her world slowly and incorporates it into the story, as well as including other pieces of writing such as emails or news articles interspersed among Zinzi's voice. Because of this sort of reveal, I spent a lot of time flipping back and forth and piecing all the facts together. Beukes also uses many words that are in another language and unfamiliar to me, so I sometimes wasn't able to glean the context. When I first started reading, I got the sense that only criminals/former criminals were "animalled." As I read more, it appears that it may be a disease or disorder, with a resulting magical power, but that doesn't explain why it only affects criminals. However, by the end of the book, it's pretty clear that only criminals are the ones "animalled." I was also confused about the Undertow, the process where zoos are killed after their animals die. There were several descriptions of it, but I found it a little vague. That seems to be the point, because the "zoos" don't really understand it either. Zinzi also mentions at one point that a "animalled" human can die, but their animal can live on for a few months afterwards, but is never the same. One of the keywords on the back is "Symbiotic Familiar" and this definitely describes the relationship between humans and their animals. The animals don't talk but they do react to their human's emotions and actions. I also wanted more information into why only criminals have animals and the process in which the animal is forced on them. Zinzi at one point describes it as her "scarlet letter" and non-criminals fear "zoos." Also, where do the animals come from? Are they part of the human's soul or something else? I think I will reread this book, because that might clear up some confusion. I think the author's point was to keep things somewhat vague, because even the characters in the book don't understand everything.
Overall, I give the book 3.5ish stars. I really, really loved the character of Zinzi, and I think the author did a good job of making a not sympathetic character very sympathetic. But I had a lot of questions about the world and Zinzi's past.